I don’t know if it’s primarily an American obsession, but we have so much of our identity tied up in work. The first question everyone asks when they meet someone is, “What do you do?” There’s a tacit understanding that this means, “What is your occupation? What do you do to make money?” As if this is the primary identifier of who we are. Our occupation is not a character trait. Well, I have X as a day job, but what I do every day is write. But if I say to a new acquaintance, “I’m a writer,” the follow up question will be something along the lines of, “Oh really? What have you written?” This means, “What have you published that I have heard of?”
We are not the sum of the hours we put toward our bi-weekly paycheck. However, what we choose to show up for on a daily basis shapes who we are because it makes evident what is most important to us. Our priorities define our habits, and our habits then shape who we become. What we consistently do is evidence of our core values.
Pair the fact that we wrap ourselves up in our work with the fact that many people hate their jobs. There’s a pop culture epidemic of hating the day job. Almost everyone can relate to “Office Space.” We are made to feel like we’re supposed to hate our job. Do a quick Google search of “why do I hate my job” and see the appalling wealth of results. Look at how many movies there are that revolve around it: Nine to Five, Fight Club, The Devil Wears Prada, American Beauty, Clerks, Training Day, Reality Bites. Then there are television shows like The Office, Workaholics, Black Books, and evidently there’s a show called I Hate My Job.
So what factors suck the joy out of an otherwise decent job?
Money: Often we choose our jobs because we want to make money right away and don’t really know what we want to do yet or what options are available to us. But because now we have so many opportunities to niche down into something we love, we feel like we ought to love our job. But it’s not fulfilling us on many levels other than paying the bills, and we sometimes feel powerless to change directions. Even if the work itself is enjoyable, getting money for doing it creates a bad taste in our mouth for that task because it (consciously or not) makes the motivation for doing it feel icky. Extrinsic motivators are short-lived; we need deeper, more personal reasons to perform well. (To nerd out on this phenomenon, see the psychology behind cognitive dissonance.)
Poor management: a bad boss can spoil a good job. No matter how much you love every other aspect of your job, it’s hard to be motivated to work for someone you don’t respect or trust or believe in. If you work for someone whose values are questionable, don’t expect to ever be rewarded for your smarts or hard work. The recognition, if any, will usually go to the person giving the least push-back/challenge. Somewhere along the line you lost that sense of pride in your work. No one else seems to care, so you stopped caring. When you do a stellar job, there’s no reward. It seems like the only time anyone looks at what you do is that one time you pick your nose or talk to yourself out loud.
Lack of purpose: Or we feel like our job isn’t really meaningful, or isn’t using us to our full potential. We either feel overqualified for the work we are doing, or that the work doesn’t serve a benevolent purpose. Either way, it can make us feel like we are wasting our time. We want to matter, and we want to know that what we’re spending a great deal of our time doing matters. But hey, it’s not like you’re going to pass this job on to your kids, right? If it’s not a job you’d wish on your children, then why stay there?
Social isolation: It’s easy to start to feel like your life revolves around your work rather than the other way around. You’re too drained to really enjoy your time at home, and you feel like you don’t have time or energy for a social life. You can start to feel like the “relationships” at work are futile. You see your co-workers more than your family and friends. You see the same people eight hours a day, seven days a week, but don’t truly know them. And if you are friends, that relationship revolves around work, and you don’t want to drag work into your social life. Or maybe your workplace is such a revolving door that you don’t get the chance to know anybody, in which case red flag, start applying elsewhere.
Health: Sometimes your eating habits suffer. You only have so much time for lunch, and you’re not going to eat a salad at your desk again. Sometimes you just need to get out of the building and grab the closest acceptable thing to booze: a burger or a shake. It doesn’t take long to form a bad habit, and if you’re health slides then all the other negatives in your life are going to be amplified. Get out of the office if you need to, but make healthy choices.
Obsolescence: And the last thing that can make the day job a drag: you see yourself getting replaced. They’ve brought in new blood, now you feel like the under-appreciated middle child.
If this is all depressing to you or hitting home, I have good news. There are ways to shake of the job hate:
- Change up your environment. Re-orient your desk. Do some spring cleaning. Get a fun desktop mascot. It sounds silly, but little things can help change our perspective. Sometimes we just need some freshening up.
- Daydream a bit. Imagine your ideal workplace. Just for fun, here are some dreamy fictional workplaces.
- Seek feedback from the boss. Get a quick check-up. Maybe there’s an underlying symptom of your job dissatisfaction that you’re not seeing. It can help to put another pair of eyes on it, someone who isn’t in the trenches with you.
- Revisit your company’s mission statement. Does it resonate with you like it did when you started? Think about what drew you to there in the first place and consider a “renewing of your vows,” as it were.
- Do something to boost your energy during your break. Walk around the block. Play a game. Read a chapter of a book. Find something to look forward to during your own time that will make your focus stronger when you resume your work.
- Find fulfillment outside of work. This should go without saying. Looking for your job to fulfill you is a recipe for disappointment. But if you can enjoy the work for what it is without having too many expectations of it, then your eight hours will go by that much faster. And having another pursuit to look forward to at the end of the day will energize you to get home and take the focus off of the day job. You may not realize that you’re projecting negativity onto your day job because you don’t have something else to pour yourself into and enjoy. Just an hour or two of time for your own interest can change help shift your attitude.
- Another way to shift your attitude and mindset is to journal in the morning. It’s like a therapy session or morning constitutional before work. Get your thoughts out of your head and you can begin to understand them better. Unburden your mind of whatever has been floating around in there. Writing things down clarifies and solidifies more things than you’d imagine. I’ve been doing morning pages or some version of early wake daily write for years, and it makes all the difference in how I go into my workday.
- Instead of feeling sorry for yourself because you’re overqualified and underappreciated, look for how you can provide value to others both within and outside of your day job. Can you encourage others at work who feel the same way? Can you start a reading group or lunchtime walking team? Maybe a small gift to your coworkers would brighten their outlook (“I thought you’d think these Post-its were fun,” or “I got some little bags of trail mix for all of us.”) Try a meetup with people who have similar interests. Or write a blog post about your experience.
- If things are really that grim, consider quitting. If you’re getting nothing but a paycheck and ulcers, move on. You and your job aren’t doing each other any favors if you’re miserable every day, so find something else. Some relationships just don’t work out, but that doesn’t mean the job of your dreams isn’t out there somewhere. If you need some time to work on you before jumping into the next thing, then so be it. Just don’t stay stuck in the wrong job for the rest of your life. You deserve better.
Have you been in this boat? Do you have tactics to either get you through the days or get you out of there and into something better? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Don’t fret, my friends. Jobs are never a life sentence. You have so much freedom! Find something that lights you up inside.